ByScott Wardell, writer at
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Scott Wardell

We are not always in control. This sentiment is no truer than for those men, women and children who have firsthand experience of life within a cult, which is why Cults & Conspiracies seeks to understand this human evil and the psychological motivations behind it. Inspired by Hulu's , Cults & Conspiracies examines how cults entrap their followers and perpetuate their radical ideologies among their worshippers.

Throughout the season, Cults & Conspiracies has interviewed survivors from the Jonestown Massacre, an escapee from the Children of God cult and even an expert cult-deprogrammer to understand how these groups function, giving us an intimate look at what goes on behind closed doors. With the season coming to a close, here's a reprisal of what we're learned thus far on Cults & Conspiracies.

The Beginning: How Do Cults Gain New Followers?

The acquisition of new followers is paramount for any cult to thrive. How is it, then, that seemingly normal people are drawn into these groups? Cult expert Rachel Bernstein outlines the most common criteria that cults exploit to gain new followers:

"The people who get involved are often idealistic and open-minded...They can be tapped into and manipulated. So if you have these qualities, be mindful and protective of them — know that there are some people will take advantage of them."

These include:

  • An eagerness to learn, open-mindedness about looking at the world and or one's own life.
  • Spirituality, whether religious or another connection to something spiritual.
  • Activism, often associated with efforts to make a difference in the world.
  • People who seek out the non-mainstream way of doing things and are open to the fringes of society and culture.
'The Path' [Credit: Hulu]
'The Path' [Credit: Hulu]

Bernstein goes on to suggest that more important than aligning cult values with a recruit's personality, the timing of recruitment is a group's most effective tool. By targeting a potential recruit during a time of weakness, loneliness or loss, he or she is at their most vulnerable and impressionable. After the introduction, groups can begin the laborious process of indoctrinating their new followers.

See also:

Keeping The Faith: How Cults Indoctrinate And Brainwash Members

Once accepted into a cult, the new recruit must be conditioned accordingly. This process takes on many different forms, from meditation to manual labor, with every method designed to stop someone from thinking and relying on their own judgement in favor of the group's agenda.

'The Path' [Credit: Hulu]
'The Path' [Credit: Hulu]

According to Jonestown survivor Laura Johnston Kohl,

"Jim told one of his secretaries, 'I keep them tired and I keep them poor and that's why they never leave.' So we were kept tired...We never had rest time to review, contemplate what had happened or reflect on the day, that was not something that was ever part of our schedules."

Brainwashing does not happen overnight. Sociology professor and cult expert Dr. Janja Lalich emphasizes that "the indoctrination process is ongoing and has to continually be reinforced." Repetitive and relentless conditioning, programming and testing molds followers into well-behaved members. With each test, members "recommit" to the group and its ideals, strengthening that bond and making it harder to divorce oneself from it.

Taking it one step further, cults reinforce this programming by placing fault on those who struggle or question the group's message, slapping them with heavy-handed blame and punishment. This psychological abuse drives members into a deeper commitment, where it becomes blasphemous to say anything against authority.

Understanding What Makes An Effective Cult Leader

A cult is only as effective as its leader and the authority with which he or she commands the group. Cult leaders like Marshall Herff Applewhite, Jim Jones and David Berg became veritable messiahs within their groups thanks to their ability to capture the hearts and minds of their followers — by whatever means necessary.

'Jim Jones' [Credit: Wikicommons, Nancy Wong]
'Jim Jones' [Credit: Wikicommons, Nancy Wong]

Words like charisma, personality and aura are often used to highlight traits that make these leaders so beloved by followers, but Dr. Janja Lalich suggests that many cult leaders are nothing more than clever con artists:

"They may believe on some level they have special powers; I suppose on some level they have to believe their own story...But some people don't quite understand how charisma works: Charisma is a social relationship. Someone is not charismatic unless they have followers."

These leaders surround themselves with a community that builds them up, often elevating their status to that of a higher power. Using love, guilt, shame, peer pressure and more, cult leaders manipulate members into believing that the group's actions are nothing out of the ordinary, thus perpetuating their own power and authority, eliminating any and all who challenge them.

'The Path' [Credit: Hulu]
'The Path' [Credit: Hulu]

It's easy to imagine who those who become disillusioned with the group face incredible social pressures and even death for defying their leaders. But for those who are fortunate enough to survive and escape the clutches of these cults, how does life continue?

The End Is Nigh: Escaping Cults And Life Beyond Worship

For cult followers who liberate themselves, the struggle of life beyond the cult is often more challenging than life within the group. How does one return to normal life after months, sometimes years of programming, brainwashing and punishment? Children of God survivor Flor Edwards highlights how all-encompassing cult life becomes for those who are engrained:

"The really difficult part was leaving the group, and I mean everything about it: the social aspect, the financial aspect, education. I didn't have any schooling my whole life and suddenly I started high school."

"I would say the social part was hardest. Immediately, I'm surrounded by people who look like foreigners to me and that was very difficult for me to fit in. I had to make up stories about my past for a long time."

Each of the guests on this season of Cults & Conspiracies have proven that reintegration into society is possible, and facing the truth of how cults recruit and reprogram their followers can be a powerful tool in understanding what drives human delusions of power and influence. Armed with this knowledge, ask yourself: Could YOU survive a cult?

Nowhere are the hard truths about cults — from recruitment to escape — depicted in more stark realism than in Hulu's The Path, streaming now.


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